Quick guide to comparing broadband and mobile broadband
What is Broadband Genie?
Broadband Genie provides a place where consumers can learn about home broadband, mobile broadband and tablet PCs. But more importantly you can also compare broadband providers in an unbiased, independent, plain-English environment.
We maintain reviews and price comparison data for all the leading UK broadband providers and mobile broadband networks, and many of the smaller ones too.
The broadband comparison guides on this page and throughout the site provide introductory help which is well worth a read if you're just starting to compare broadband prices or tablet PC deals. When you feel like you've got it sussed, dive into our comparison tables to find the best broadband provider or mobile broadband deals for you.
We set up Broadband Genie back in 2004 to allow people to compare broadband ISPs quickly and easily. Now more than 275,000 people a month use Broadband Genie to save money, check the performance of their current broadband internet or mobile broadband provider, or to read our plain-English guides. The benefits of using Broadband Genie remain the same:
- Save time and money. We spend loads of time gathering and checking all the price and package data from all the best UK broadband providers, so you don't have to.
- Be a sheep, make your life easy. If you don't want to trawl through the comparison tables looking for that special deal, see what our experienced editors and users recommend.
- Get an education. If you want to learn all about broadband and the mobile internet, how it works and how to compare it, then let us translate it all into plain English for you. We've got help guides, blogs, daily news, and loads of places you can ask questions or just have a good moan.
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For our part, we promise above all else to be on your side. That means that we're impartial, independent, and consumer-focused, and we'll try our level best to avoid (or explain) jargon and make sure all of our data is bang up to date. Our aim is pretty simple: to help you find the best broadband package for you. And we won't even charge you - Broadband Genie is completely free of charge.
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What is broadband?
Broadband is a technology that allows you to access the internet (email, the web, downloads, remote access to office PC, and so on) at high speeds. Broadband internet is fast (and getting faster), continuous (doesn't need to be turned on and off) and independent of your phone calls (so you can use phone and broadband at the same time).
As well as getting online via a PC or Mac, many televisions and games systems can get you online too. Plus very often now broadband is also wireless, which means you can wander round your house with your laptop and access your broadband connection anywhere.
Also, mobile broadband (via the mobile networks) means you can get online on the move, either via a device such as a laptop or tablet PC.
The largest, most popular companies that offer home broadband deals include:
However, you shouldn't rule out smaller companies such as BE, Plusnet, Eclipse and Tesco Broadband, as they all have something different to offer - from cheap broadband offers to specialised gaming or the best business broadband deals.
What types of broadband are available?
Broadband is a general term used to describe several types of services that are delivered in different ways. Before you decide what broadband tariff is right for you, make sure you're familiar with the following terms:
- ADSL. This stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line, but all you need to know is it's the most common form of home broadband. By using a splitter (so you can still take phone calls) it turns your standard copper BT phone line into a high-speed internet connection. Just remember you'll still need to pay standard telephone line rental (currently around £15 per month) in addition to the advertised broadband fee to get the service. If a home broadband deal is advertised here at a speed up to around 20Mb, it is likely to be an ADSL deal.
- LLU. LLU stands for local loop unbundling. This is where some home broadband providers (such as EE, Sky and TalkTalk) put their own equipment into one of BT's telephone exchanges to improve on the quality, and in particular speed, that the line to a customer's house is capable of.
- Cable. Cable broadband works via a dedicated fibre optic broadband cable being provided to your home by Virgin Media (formed by the merger of NTL and Telewest). Telephone services and digital TV channels can be provided over the cable too, which means you could save some by looking at TV, broadband and phone packages. Not all areas can receive cable though - Virgin cable has around 60 per cent of the broadband UK population covered. Click here for more about Virgin broadband.
- Fibre. While cable was the fastest broadband on the block for some time, BT Openreach is now upgrading its old copper network to fibre and starting to compete with cable on speed. BT fibre optic isn't available as far and wide as Virgin just yet, but it's getting there - while Sky fibre and deals from other providers are also becoming more widespread. If you are a London broadband user you should have an amazing choice - but I'm afraid those of us in more rural areas will have to wait.
- Mobile broadband. Mobile broadband allows you to access the internet away from home (in a cafe, on a beach, on site with a client, etc) via devices such as tablets and laptops via an inbuilt SIM or 3G dongle. It uses the UK's mobile phone networks to transfer the signal wirelessly, making it hugely flexible and useful. The nature of the beast means that this convenience is tempered with some reliability and speed issues. However the introduction of 4G mobile broadband is starting to improve matters.
What's the difference between home and mobile broadband?
To put it simply, home broadband and mobile broadband do what they say on the tin: home broadband is limited to your home or office, while mobile broadband can be used on the go.
Home broadband has some distinct advantages over its more mobile cousin. For now, if you want reliable and fast broadband, it's the best option. In addition to speed and reliability you tend to get more generous download limits, while in terms of broadband and TV packages it's the only way to go. Just remember you can't get home broadband without phone line charges, as you need a landline to get fixed-line internet.
Mobile broadband also has both strengths and weaknesses. The big mobile internet plus is that it allows you to connect to the web wherever you are - as long as you have mobile broadband coverage. You can access it via a smartphone, Mobile WiFi (or MiFi - a portable wireless mobile device) or "dongle" (or stick/modem, that plugs into your laptop or PC). A MiFi or internet dongle gives you a lot of flexibility, as they can be used with different devices, while being able to access the internet on your phone can be a real god send. Another plus for many are pay as you go dongle deals, which let you spend on downloads only when you need them.
On the downside, as mentioned above, speed, coverage and reliability can all be problems with mobile broadband. You may get good coverage locally, but when you're elsewhere it might be found wanting just when you need it most. And while it's possible to find unlimited mobile broadband tariffs they're often not as fantastic as they might sound - be sure to read the small print.
Can mobile broadband replace my home broadband?
In theory yes, but probably not for the majority of people. Some analysts predict 4G mobile broadband will eventually outperform home, fixed-line broadband. But currently, mobile internet speeds (despite the advertising) very rarely match up to home broadband.
The same goes for the reliability of signal. And, with the best broadband providers now pushing fibre to speed faster than 100Mb the gap has widened, not shrunk. However, mobile broadband is great in certain situations and for certain types of users: it's obviously great on the move, and also as a backup to your home or business broadband connection, while students flitting between halls of residence, the family home and the library often find it ideal. Then, if you're only using broadband to check the net, use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, or for a bit of sat nav, you may be fine with just access via your phone.
While mobile broadband is getting faster with 4G, it would be risky to rely on it for large downloads, television services or essential connections. And the reality is that 4G has very little coverage as yet - most places you'll have 3G internet coverage at best, even if you have a 4G device. If you can afford to, right now it's best to go with the best of both worlds.
Home vs mobile broadband: installation
If you're not very technical, you shouldn't worry - both home and mobile broadband are pretty easy to install and technical support is only a phone call away.
Home broadband tends to be first set up through a laptop or PC. You'll have a modem to connect to your telephone and an installation CD to run in your computer, both of which tend to be very straightforward. If you're getting cable installed, or receiving television services or a new phone line, even better - an engineer is likely to be sent over to fix everything up for you.
Due to its flexible nature, mobile broadband tends to be even simpler to install - if you need to install it at all. Dongles simply plug into your laptop or PC once you've activated the SIM, while a mobile WiFi device should simply be found in your list of WiFi signals once activated. Accessing the mobile internet from your phone is even simpler - it should just connect out of the box.
Of course, we're presuming a certain level of technical competence here. If you're unsure about anything, just contact your provider.
Does the mobile internet actually work?
Here at Broadband Genie we've been road-testing mobile broadband since it arrived in 2007 and - with some exceptions - we've been pretty impressed. When we first plugged a dongle in, we spent the first 10 minutes marvelling at the fact we could access the internet from anywhere, just like that, but it didn't take us long to take it for granted and start moaning about the occasional drop in speed.
It's nice that when you're not in a 4G or 3G coverage area you can still access the internet via the 2G network (albeit at slower speeds), and the single best thing about mobile broadband is that you just plug a WiFi dongle in and you're away.
Let's face it; all technology can be temperamental at times. Just like with a mobile phone, you can sometimes experience difficulties with coverage, or 'time outs' when you're web browsing. The classic for us has been using mobile broadband on the train, where you whizz along for a bit on a speedy 3G connection, then go through a tunnel and lose coverage - back to square one.
Just like your home broadband, it pays to be dubious about the advertised speed the service providers claim: don't expect to get it constantly, if at all. Plenty of things affect the speed of your mobile broadband: overcrowding in an area, signal strength and electrical interference can all play a part. Just be sure to look at each mobile broadband provider's coverage checker before you commit. If you can get good coverage, even the cheapest mobile broadband deals are worth checking out.
And as always with broadband, if you're in a rural area your choices - and speeds - are likely to be more limited. The good news is that even at its slowest pace, you should be able to carry out everyday tasks, such as checking your email, without too much stress. Also, remember mobile broadband prices tend to structure around download limits so look on the bright side: the less you can download, the cheaper it's going to be!
Can I use mobile broadband overseas?
You should be able to use your wireless dongle overseas, but be very aware of the costs. EU Law has forced prices down across most of Europe, but it can still be restrictively expensive - especially as many of us now get online as second nature.
There have been some real horror stories from customers returning home from holiday to find a bill on their doormat for thousands of pounds, all because they downloaded a TV show whilst in another country to watch on the beach.
If you regularly travel overseas it's worth looking for packages specifically aimed at travellers. These include monthly bundled overseas data allowances but can still be very expensive. Also, check out our extensive guide to using mobile broadband abroad.
What are tablet PC with broadband deals all about?
While the big trend in mobile broadband used to be free laptop deals, much of the focus has now moved to tablet PCs such as the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab, as well as budget models such as the Amazon Kindle Fire. Where it used to be netbooks, tablets are often now offered at reduced prices to sweeten mobile broadband deals.
While laptops tend to be mini computers, working in the same way as their larger counterparts, tablet PCs tend to be more like smartphones. The screen size tends to be seven to 10 inches (compared to an average of around 15-17 inches for a laptop, or three to five inches for a smartphone) and they're activated via touchscreen and use apps, in the same way as modern mobile phones.
Many people are finding that they can do everything they need with an iPad or other tablet, rather than paying extra for a high end laptop or netbook. If you don't need the large screen and fast processor, tablet PCs can be ideal sofa or travel companions, for example - smaller and lighter.
For example, you could look for an Apple iPad or iPad Mini contract and save hundreds of pounds compared to the outlay you'd be looking at for an iMac or other laptop. You can now get a pay as you go iPad SIM card as well; perfect for those who only occasionally need to get online on the move - the rest of the time you can simply connect via WiFi.
Just remember, even if a deal claims it offers a free tablet PC or free iPad it's not exactly going to be 'free'. Instead you'll pay less (or nothing) up front, but pay for the device over the length of your (often long) contract. This can still be a perfect deal though - think of it as a hire purchase arrangement, but with no interest.
How do I compare broadband prices on fixed-line deals?
The cost of home broadband varies greatly according to factors such as length of contract, download speed and download caps. Some may find they get better value from a UK broadband provider that bundles in a television or phone service, while others may head straight for the broadband only deals - it's horses for courses, but there are enough variations to keep everyone happy.
We would certainly advise carrying out some research and shopping around before signing up to a fixed-line broadband service - especially as you could be signed into the contract for anything up to two years. The best broadband provider for you may be that extra five minutes research away. Also, consider getting several services on one bill as this can be both cheaper and more convenient than having services from several companies. Good examples include Sky phone and broadband, or BT TV.
As a general rule, keep an eye out for special offers and introductory rates (highlighted on our site in red) - UK broadband is a very competitive yet saturated market, so broadband providers often launch short term deals to encouraging customers to switch with the promise of several months' reduced cost broadband. You might even find you get free broadband for a limited time, which can represent a significant saving - but remember the price will go up later and you'll still have to pay line rental!
How do I find the best broadband provider for me?
Broadband Genie publishes and maintains a whole range of broadband comparison tables to help consumers find the right deal; everything from student broadband (special student rates and short-term contracts) to no contract broadband (pay on a month-to-month basis, when available).
You'll probably be able find a big list of ISPs and packages within your budget. But which has the best broadband deal for you? To get you started, think about these factors when you compare broadband prices:
- Availability. Not all broadband packages are available in all postcodes. Before anything else, make sure you use our postcode availability checker at the top of each home broadband comparison page to see what broadband is available where you live. With mobile broadband, check each provider's own coverage checker.
- Brand. It's important to some people to go with a trusted brand. You can check our broadband reviews to get the opinions of our expert editors as well as real broadband customers (for example see the Plusnet broadband review).
- Speed. Is connection speed important to you? If you are only a casual internet user and simply want to do things like check your email, read the news and do your banking online, you can probably make do with a standard ADSL service (from around 6-20Mb). However, if want to use your broadband connection to carry out more bandwidth-intensive tasks - connecting multiple machines, streaming and downloading a lot of programs, or online gaming - you may want to consider superfast fibre/cable where available.
- Download limit. Broadband providers often impose a download 'cap' on customers, so you also need to think about the volume of data you will be downloading. If you're just checking your email, social networking and visiting a few web pages the lowest allowances could be plenty. However, if you exceed your limit you could have your speeds cut, or even be charged extra. Where possible, check your current usage to see what you need before signing up for a new deal - or if you're new to broadband, keep a close eye on usage once you've signed up and upgrade if necessary. If you are a heavy user or do not want to worry about going over your download cap, an unlimited broadband service is probably best. However, even so-called unlimited packages are sometimes subject to a 'fair use policy', so make sure you read the small print.
- Contract length. Contract lengths vary from one month to two years, so there really is something for everyone. When you sign up to a broadband package you are obliged to stick with that service for the stated time. This means you can't cancel within that period without incurring substantial charges: even exceptional circumstances can lead to some kind of penalty. Longer contract terms offer better value for money, but you should be completely happy to be tied into a contract for the stated period before you sign on the dotted line: you need to be sure you have the best broadband provider for you to take on a two-year tariff.
- Price (obviously). Before you search for the best broadband it's a good idea to sit down and work out how much you want to spend every month. Generally (but not always, of course) if you afford more then you'll get a better service with more bells and whistles. But don't be drawn to the cheapest broadband deals simply for the offer of a free gadget or bundled service unless you are absolutely sure you can keep up with payments for the total term of your contract.
- Extras. When it comes to broadband, UK customers are the same as they are with everything else - we love a bargain offer. Rather than seek out a solitary broadband deal you could drastically cut your household's monthly bills by seeking out a bundled broadband package that includes services such as free phone calls or digital TV subscriptions.
It's also worth checking out Broadband Genie's annual home broadband survey to see who we crowned the best broadband provider for 2016.
How do I compare UK mobile broadband prices?
There are five mobile broadband networks in the UK, operated by T-Mobile,Vodafone, Orange, O2 and Three Mobile. Other companies (called MVNOs) also sell mobile broadband products, such as Virgin Media, but they each piggyback on one of those five networks.
It's impossible to say off-hand which of the providers offers the best mobile broadband deals as there are several factors people need to consider. Here are some of the main criteria to bear in mind when doing a mobile broadband comparison:
- Usage/download limits. Probably the most important thing to consider is whether you'll be a heavy or a light user. For the vast majority of users a low limit will be absolutely fine, but you'll need more if you plan on file sharing, downloading lots of music, or streaming content such as YouTube or the BBC iPlayer.
- Speed. Different providers advertise different speeds, but generally our advice is to ignore them - your location will probably be more of a deciding factor, due to mast locations, interference etc. Instead, try each provider's postcode checker or try to find out from friends who live in your area. We wouldn't recommend choosing a package purely on the basis of the speed offered, unless it is a 4G service - where available these should be significantly faster than 3G.
- Monthly contract or pay as you go. Decisions, decisions... A contract will tend to get you more bang for your buck, but you're tied in with that particular provider and tariff. But if you go with SIM only mobile broadband, if a great deal becomes available you can simply get a SIM from that provider instead. Generally, you'll get a cheaper monthly tariff if you're prepared to commit for a longer contract. But due to the ever improving nature of the mobile broadband market, this can be a risk.
Rather than clicking round all the providers' sites, Broadband Genie maintains an up-to-date, complete listing of mobile broadband offers and prices which you check free of charge. It's the best way to compare mobile broadband deals.
Are there any hidden costs?
The main additional cost you may experience after you buy mobile broadband is 'overage' charges - penalty charges for exceeding your usage limit.
You need to be aware that, like home broadband, most mobile broadband contracts include a download cap. Unlike home broadband, though, the mobile providers enforce these limits strictly and there have been occasional high-profile horror stories where consumers have accidentally (but expensively) gone way over their usage limits.
T-Mobile offers a 'fair usage' policy rather than a strict download limit - this means you won't be charged if you go over your limit, but if you do so repeatedly T-Mobile will start to slow down your connection.
As long as you stick to your download limit you should be OK. If you go over your download cap, however, you may be charged for every megabyte of data you use - this can soon mount up into a hefty bill if you do this regularly and you should check your provider's rates.
Even if a deal looks like it may include more data than you need, offers of free hardware may make them look tempting. However, do you really need that new dongle or mobile Wi-Fi unit?
How do I switch broadband provider?
It's unwise to stay settled with a broadband or mobile broadband provider after your contract ends without at least exploring the possibility of switching. You could save yourself money changing your provider, or get yourself a faster service with a more generous download cap.
Switching home broadband provider
First of all you need to check the date your contract ends. If this has passed or is fast approaching, you can get in contact with your current broadband provider to obtain a MAC code. It's now much easier to get a MAC code - they are now obliged to pass it over to you swiftly under rules enforced by telecommunications watchdog Ofcom. You may find they try and convince you to stay by offering a better deal, but if you still want to switch that's your choice!
When you've found the provider and package you want to sign up to, you should provide them with your MAC code. Your new provider should keep you update with the switching progress and when you should expect to be able to carry out the installation for your new ISP service.
Switching between cable and ADSL broadband
It's worth noting that switching from an ADSL provider (e.g. BT, TalkTalk) to cable provider Virgin Media, or vice versa, is simpler because you don't need a MAC code - you simply end the contract with one and start with the other. However, you may need to have new cables running into your property and this may incur both costs and time if an engineer needs to visit your home.
Switching mobile broadband provider
Switching mobile broadband provider is even simpler. If you're on a monthly contract then you'll need to cancel it (possibly incurring a penalty if it's before it's due to end), then simply sign up to your new provider of choice. The main deterrent to switching mobile broadband providers is often your hardware is locked to the old network, meaning you need a new dongle or mobile WiFi unit. However, it is sometimes possible to get your old hardware unlocked.